Mitt Romney Knows Your Favorite Porn Sites And Wants Your Vote

As our lives become more intertwined with the digital world, the amount of information about ourselves that gets recorded in ones and zeros is growing dramatically. All that data helps us reconnect with friends, run relevant Google searches and better manage our health. It also, as it turns out, helps politicians persuade us. 

With the next U.S. presidential election weeks away, both campaigns are using personal data about would-be voters on a scale "never before imagined", according to The New York Times. This large-scale, unprecedented data mining by the Obama and Romney campaigns includes the type of information long available from sources like Acxiom and Equifax. To an increasing extent, it also includes data gleaned from our online habits. 

Much like advertisers use browser cookies to track users across the Web for marketing purposes, political campaigns use the same technology to collect browsing histories on voters. Writes The Times

The campaigns have planted software known as cookies on voters’ computers to see if they frequent evangelical or erotic Web sites for clues to their moral perspectives. Voters who visit religious Web sites might be greeted with religion-friendly messages when they return to mittromney.com or barackobama.com.

Indeed, after visiting BarackObama.com, my browser had stored 31 cookies from that domain, including its subdomains. MittRomney.com dropped about half as many cookies on my machine, but it was still more than the average site, which typically installs one or two cookies. 

Most of these cookies are likely used for routine, perfectly harmless purposes. But some of them are undoubtedly following users around the Web and keeping track of what kind of sites they visit, all in an effort to build out an evermore robust profile of who voters are. 

Granted, this sort of thing happens all the time. It's at the  heart of the "Do Not Track" fight going on between the government, public interest groups, Internet marketers and tech companies. When my browser loads a banner ad served up from 24/7 Real Media, for example, a cookie from their servers follows me around the Web and helps inform their ad network about what to show me next. This can actually be quite useful, as I've argued in the past

What the presidential campaigns are doing is a little different. For one, they're trying to persuade people to cast a ballot for the next leader of the free world rather than buy a new toaster. And unlike digital ad networks such as 24/7 Real Media - who explicitly vow not to collection personally identifiable information - the data collected by these campaigns is not anonymous. In fact, their sites are designed to encourage people to identify themselves immediately, usually by signing up for an email newsletter and providing their ZIP code. In its privacy policy, the Obama campaign acknowledges that it may tie one's identify to data collected via cookies. Romney's policy is far less detailed, but nothing in the fine print explicitly forbids them from doing the same. 

The voter profiles built by these sites get a lot more detailed when visitors register, especially when they sign in via Facebook or Twitter. Connecting one's Facebook account to MittRomney.com, for example, opens up a whole new set of personal data to the campaign. This includes your name, email address, gender, networks to which you belong, and list of your friends. Depending on how diligent you are about your privacy settings, the app might be able to access much more than that. By comparison, the Obama campaign's Facebook app grabs even more data, including your likes, location history (insofar as you've provided it to Facebook), photos and basic information about each of your friends. 

Both campaigns are combining these data points with consumer information purchased from private providers in an effort to understand as much as possible about who voters are, what their lives are like and how the details might inform their decision on Nov. 6. This insight, which can get pretty personal, helps guide campaign workers in their conversations with voters. 

This year, as The Times reports, campaign strategists are actually holding back in their usage of this personal data for fear of freaking voters out. Among themselves, political operatives debate things like whether to publicly shame citizens for not voting and how personal to get on cold calls. If that last campaign caller sounded a little too informed, just wait until 2016.